The Sophisticated Lady is exactly what it sounds like: elegant. It features a tart mix of cranberry juice, muddled cucumber slices, simple syrup, and a pinch of salt. “When I created it,’’ says the Hawthorne co-owner Jackson Cannon, “I had some people with very sophisticated palates blind-taste it and tell me what they thought the base spirit was.’’ Tasters thought “vodka or gin or even Aperol.’’ Cannon thinks it is the best drink he’s ever created, and, says the bar director for Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, ironically, it’s booze-less.
People forgo alcohol for many reasons. Aside from having to drive or not being a fan or in the mood, someone may avoid alcohol because they are allergic, pregnant, a recovering alcoholic, or taking an alcohol-incompatible medication. Others abstain for religious beliefs. Most of those people sip sodas because it’s unusual - until now - to find balanced, creative nonalcoholic drinks around town.
“Often, the best thing [a non-drinker] will be offered is cranberry juice and soda water or seltzer with a lime,’’ says Todd Maul, bar director at Clio in Boston. “It’s really short-changing people. If you went out to eat and said you didn’t eat chicken, you’d be pretty unhappy to be served a bad piece of fish.’’
Maul introduced a full page of “unspirited’’ beverages to Clio’s bar menu 18 months ago, when his wife and chef-owner Ken Oringer’s wife were both pregnant. While “many may enjoy the effect’’ of alcohol, says Maul, he thinks “most people drink for the taste.’’ Given that, it’s quite possible to mix a nonalcoholic drink that will be savored as it’s sipped - if you understand the inherent challenges.
For starters, “alcohol has a fairly intense flavor that’s a great platform,’’ notes Adam Lantheaume, owner of the Boston Shaker, a cocktail-supply shop in Somerville. Meg Grady-Troia, co-owner of Journeyman restaurant in Somerville, agrees. “In a cocktail, you are building around a spirit that has a story. There are infusions, barrel aging, or a particular root, herb, fruit or terrain at its base.’’ So, understandably, “making a nonalcoholic martini is tough,’’ says Lantheaume.
But making a nonalcoholic tiki drink proves a lot easier. “Yes, you’re removing the rum,’’ says Lantheaume. “But there are so many other rich flavors left - juices, passion fruit syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, clove. It’s a different drink, but what’s left is still interesting and more than palatable.’’
“Although it sounds like exactly the wrong word, alcohol also brings a sort of temperance to a drink,’’ explains Grady-Troia. “It changes how you taste sugar, citrus, and every other flavor.’’
Soda water can help compensate for this effect in a mocktail, she says. “The bubbles have a lot of the same cleansing properties that alcohol does. They wash your mouth clean with every sip and have a natural acid.’’
Cannon says alcohol aids in flavor extraction. He also notes that it makes ice melt faster, which adds water to a drink. He says it’s important to let muddled ingredients sit longer while mixing cocktails to bring out flavors. (Muddling is the method of crushing fruits or herbs with the back of a spoon or a pestle before adding liquid ingredients.) Meanwhile, adding a half-ounce of water to drinks in which you are directly substituting an alcohol-free base for an alcohol one keeps the drink from tasting too sweet.
Despite the traditional second-class standing on the local bar scene of alcohol-free drinks, ultimately the sky is the limit when creating new mocktails.
“It’s all about finding ways to add complexity to your drink, whether that’s by playing with tea, coffee, vinegars, syrups, soy sauce, or orange blossom and rose water,’’ says Grady-Troia. “There are so many liquids used to successfully season food that people never think to mix drinks with.’’